a stolen cover letter, an invitation to my boss’s spouse’s birthday party, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My manager wants to groom me for more responsibility, but I don’t want to move up

I like my current manager, who I have worked with for one year now, but she tends to “mother” me, for lack of a better word. I can’t blame her for this too much as I am the same age as her daughter (26). She is great at providing feedback and I know she believes in my capabilities and is impressed with me, which is great! However, I feel like she sees me doing greater things than what I see myself doing. I don’t like to have too much responsibility and I frankly never really envision myself being in her shoes (as in, managing a marketing program with a team of direct reports).

I am quite content to be a team member. I don’t want to be as busy as she is or to be that stressed all the time! I am very happy with my salary and am happy with “moving up” through merit raises, horizontal moves, and tenure rather than vertical moves. She often pressures me to take leadership classes, even those that are only for managers, because it will be “so good for my future,” and she often subtly pressures me to travel more and go to lots of conferences despite the fact that she knows I hate to travel (I have a fear of flying and a disabled spouse at home). I sometimes get the feeling that she is living vicariously through me or like she is projecting her own ambitions (or her regrets) onto me. Where is the line?

It’s great that she’s taking an interest in your professional development, but why not talk to her candidly about where you do and don’t want your career to go? Rightly or wrongly, people do tend to assume that everyone wants to take on more responsibility or eventually manage a staff, so if you don’t, it can be helpful to be explicit with your manager about that.

Of course, when you do this, framing it as “I want to focus on being awesome at what I do currently” is better than “I hate responsibility,” because the latter can come back to bite you in unforeseen ways. It’s also important to make sure that the stuff she’s pressuring you to do is really just “if you want to advance in the future” stuff. It’s possible that it’s actually “if you want to do well in your current role” stuff, and if that’s the case, that’s important for you to know. So talk to about this whole topic and see where that takes you.

2. My employee is interrupting me and overstepping his role

I was recently promoted to supervisor of my department over another person who very much wanted the position. We’ve been working together well for the most part but there are occasions where he oversteps his role and I am finding it difficult to handle. For example, I called a meeting with he and two other of my employees (whom this person is senior to). During the meeting he spoke over me several times and at the end I said that I would send out meeting notes and follow up with other teams on Monday. I checked my email later that evening to find out that he had taken it upon himself to send out meeting notes and assign himself all of the action items we’d discussed, including ones I had asked others to handle and one that I took on.

Being a new manager, I am uncertain how to address these instances. It seems that when we are in meetings with our subordinates, he feels the need to assert his dominance. How do I request that he take a step back without being similarly aggressive?

By being clear, direct, and calm and letting him know what you want him to change about his behavior: “Bob, I noticed that in the meeting this afternoon, you spoke over me several times. Please don’t speak over me or your coworkers.” (Or, better, in the moment itself: “Excuse me, I’d like to finish what I’m saying.”)

And about the notes: “As I said in the meeting, I planned to send out the notes and follow up on action items. What happened?” … “I need you to focus on your own work and leave items I’m handling to me.”

3. I’m invited to my boss’s spouse’s birthday party — do I have to send a gift?

I received an invitation to the birthday party of the boss’s spouse. It is being held during a holiday weekend. I already have plans and will be out of town that weekend, so I am able to gracefully turn down the invite without a lot of office politics backlash. (Not to get into too much detail on the office, but it is fair to say the place is highly dysfunctional and turnover is very common. I have read many letters about horrible managers and bosses on your blog, and I can very much relate to them.)

However, while I can get out of attending, the invitation has more than just an RSVP contact. It says that no gifts are needed, but since the boss knows how generous we are, we should instead donate to the spouse’s favorite charity. If I was attending the party, I might feel obligated to provide a token donation, but since I am not even attending, should I or am I obligated to send a donation? And there is the nagging feeling that by not donating or not donating enough, I will get a black mark. I don’t object to charitable donations, although this feels coerced. I just have no ties to this charity and would like to spend my limited free money on other causes I do take part in.

So, am I obligated? Should I make a token donation just to avoid backlash? And should bosses be inviting the entire staff to what is a personal family event?

No, you’re not obligated, and you shouldn’t worry about needing to make a token donation. You’re never obligated to give a gift, and that’s even more true when you’re not even attending. An invitation is not an invoice to submit a gift.

I also wouldn’t worry too much about any backlash. Even if your boss is horrid, it would take a very specific and unusual kind of horrid to look into whether or not you donated to a charity (and while charities will usually send a “a gift was made in your honor” note, it’s pretty unlikely that anyone is going to track those, and there’s also nothing to say that you didn’t make a donation without earmarking it as specifically in the spouse’s honor — so there’s really no way for your boss to know anyway). And no, it makes no sense that your boss to inviting your entire staff to a family member’s party, unless you’re all close to the spouse. That’s bizarre. (And why would the spouse want that?)

4. My manager won’t manage and only cares about people getting along

What does one do when the manager just wants everyone to get along? A few of my officemates are so sensitive that they can’t bear any criticism whatsoever. No constructive criticism, no compliment sandwiches, no cc’d emails, NOTHING. This makes it hard to train them on new tasks, or to retrain them on tasks that they haven’t mastered for whatever reason. If you say anything at all to them, they go running to our manager that you’re being rude. Major mistakes, or tasks left undone that could cause a large problem, cannot be pointed out at all without a “you need to get along” with so-and-so. It’s gotten to the point where nobody bothers to correct anything anymore, because it will only reflect negatively on the person finding the mistake. Even our performance evaluations focused 99% on our ability to be nice to everyone, and only briefly glossed over our actual work.

This has caused our entire department’s work output to suffer immensely. Files are sloppy, items are entered incorrectly, but even mentioning that to our manager will only cause her to ask “why does that matter?” I’m at a total loss, because at some point HER boss (who is very detail oriented) has got to wonder what is going on down here. Any suggestions?

Change jobs or resign yourself to your work life being like this. Your manager sucks in a profound way and isn’t going to change. She doesn’t know what’s important or how to manage or what her job is. And her boss probably suffers from a version of the same. When you’re in that spot, there’s nothing you can do except accept it or move on. I’m sorry.

5. A job candidate stole a cover letter from Ask a Manager

I’ve been a reader for a few years now and while searching for jobs I’ve turned to your articles on cover letters for much needed advice. A long time back I read this article on your site and as you will soon find out, it struck a cord and I never forgot it.

My company was seeking a marketing manager and my boss sent over a great looking application. I read the cover letter and felt like I had read it before, but didn’t think much of it. That is until I got to the line that read “I know what you’re thinking, you can’t afford me…” I immediately knew that was from your site and headed over to find that article. The applicant had copied that cover letter on your site word for word! I shared the link with the hiring manager and needless to say we never contacted the applicant. We were disappointed that for a position that required writing skills somebody would plagiarize their cover letter and not make even the slightest attempt to change it.

This is one of the frustrating effects of sharing great cover letters — people steal them. I’ve also had multiple hiring managers tell me that they’ve received versions of the cover letter here too — and I even received it from an applicant myself once!

Is it too late to write back and call the person out on it? They suck.

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